The short version of this review is: The Once and Future King is the book (or rather the tetralogy) to which I compare books concerning The Matter of Britain. Hands down. Yes: I know Malory came first by several centuries, and Cretien de Troyes predated him by a couple of centuries although he didn’t cover all the canon. Yes: they’re the ‘authors’ upon whose works White based his series. Malory and de Troyes don’t make me cry, though.
For those who have no idea: It’s the life of King Arthur, the legendary British King who created the Round Table and unified the country. It’s about Merlin, the wizard who got locked in a tree by Nimue just as the Kingdom needed him most, and Lancelot the country’s greatest knight who dared love a queen, and Gawain and the Grail…no, you’d better look it up. Wikipedia’s got a good description of White’s book, as well as of Arthur, and there’s a decent web site here about the book, and here and here about Arthurian issues more generally, among others. I don’t think WordPress has the space to summarize The Matter of Britain in a single entry, and I’d rather like to avoid trying the patience of anyone reading this who has heard of the book(s).
Now, before I go any farther, I understand that not everyone’s going to like this book. If the reader’s not familiar with the Arthurian legend(s), White’s book isn’t going to make much sense; T.H. White himself even admits something to the effect that this isn’t so much an accurate retelling of the Arthurian legend as an imagining of what it must have been like to BE the people, written for readers who at least have a passing acquaintance with the original stories. An attempt to humanize a legend1, if you will, and to add a mortal dimension to a group of knights and a court which are to modern readers a myth, with all the stultifyingly suprahuman qualities that entails. This is a world in which King Arthur and his knights get old, and make mistakes, and even act silly on occasion, but on the whole…they meant well. They tried.
As for what to read next, the problem is that there’s nothing else quite like it. Unlike Dodgson’s Alice books, there are at least other books about the Arthurian legends. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is the obvious choice, but I’d suggest NOT reading that if you’ve not read anything concerning Arthur before unless you’re a thoroughly masochistic English major. Try Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur and His Knights; it’s 100 years old and more now, and has something of the archaic language of Malory’s stuff (deliberately) but at least it’s shorter and intended for children, albeit well-read ones. Chretien de Troyes recorded several legends associated with the Arthurian oeuvre, for the masochistic literature aficionados. If you like White’s writing style, he’s written other books; try Mistress Masham’s Repose, a book which similarly updates and humanizes the Lilliputians while skewering a whole ‘nother century’s worth of literature.
1Arthur’s childhood nickname was “Wart”, for example…